New research into the health impacts of ultra-processed food show that high consumption of UPF significantly raises the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attacks and strokes.
The findings – from studies by Australian and Chinese scientists – were shared this week with doctors and leading heart health researchers at the annual meeting of the European Society of Cardiology in Amsterdam.
The latest research adds to a growing body of evidence linking high consumption of ultra-processed food to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. The Government’s former Food Tsar, Henry Dimbleby, warned recently that the trend is storing up a “tidal wave of harm”.
Tidal wave of harm
In the Chinese study, researchers from the Fourth Military Medical University reviewed 10 studies that included 325,403 participants and 38,720 cases of cardiovascular disease (CVD) events, including heart attack and stroke. The Chinese team found that a 10 per cent increase in UPF consumption in daily calorie intake is linked to a 6 per cent rise in heart disease risk. But they noted that heavy UPF consumption “was significantly and positively associated with increased risk of cardiovascular events”.
In Australia, researchers at the University of Sydney, reviewed health data of about 10,000 women aged 46-55 years who were recruited into the Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health and followed for 15 years. Specifically, they looked at the contribution of UPF in the daily dietary intake of these women as well as their self-reported heart disease and stroke, and/or hypertension incidences. The team found that among the middle-aged women a higher UPF intake was associated with higher risk of CVD and hypertension, leading to one of the study’s authors to comment: “These findings lend support to minimising UPF intake as a component of a heart-healthy diet,” scientists wrote in the study.
Speaking to the media in Amsterdam, one of the researchers behind the Australian study, Anushriya Pant, said that many people may be unaware that food they assume is healthy – including shop-bought sandwiches, wraps, soups and low-fat yoghurts – were in fact UPF. “It could be that foods you think are healthy are actually contributing to you developing high blood pressure,” she said.
‘Ethical UPF’ warning
The doctor and broadcaster Chris van Tulleken has a previously said that “as a rule of thumb, any food carrying a health claim is likely to be UPF”. In his book Ultra-Processed, he also warned that “there’s plenty of organic, free-range, ‘ethical’ UPF too, which might be sold as healthy, nutritious, environmentally friendly or useful for weight loss”.